On Genre, Transcendence, Dogs, and Workshop: A Conversation with Jo Ann Beard
Adele Elise Williams
“It’s a lofty goal, to imagine translating one’s own personal experiences in a way that instructs and illuminates, moves and inspires, another human being.” A lofty goal indeed, and one that Jo Ann Beard hands down achieves in her newest book of essays, Festival Days. Although the collection includes several remarkably unique stories, it also (like The Boys of my Youth) tells stories of ordinary and everyday life. Of course it does, because that is what Beard does best: exposing and elevating the magic of our own familiar worlds. I love it. It blows my mind every time. And importantly, as a writer, it reminds me how truly unbelievable it is to just be alive. That sounds super cheesy, but I believe I’m onto something here with this whole “beauty of life and all its failures” thing.
We all know Jo Ann Beard has the storytelling chops, and while Festival Days tells great stories without fail, it also complicates generic understanding of nonfiction by challenging memory and “truth,” arguably nonfiction’s literary markers. What happens when the nonfiction writer admits their own unreliability? A reflexivity emerges that changes up the “rules” of the game, that keeps the reader on their toes. It truly is a pleasurable moment when a writer transparently addresses their own craft, their own subjectivity and fallibility, in a piece of nonfiction, as though the reader and writer are in on their own special secret. And that is what reading Jo Ann Beard feels like: intimate, guiding and enlightening.
Jo Ann Beard is the author of two collections, Festival Days and The Boys of My Youth, and a novel, In Zanesville.
Adele Elise Williams: You state in your Author’s Note in Festival Days, “I became an essayist by default. My first love was poetry, my second love was fiction, and my third and last love was the essay. It is like a third marriage—you know that this is where you are staying, where you’re going to work out your issues, for better or for worse. And yet, because we’re all only human, this very book has a couple of stories in it […] They are also essays, in their own secret ways, and the essays are also stories.” That said, while reading Festival Days I didn’t find myself overly-concerned with what was fiction or nonfiction. You were in control, and I trusted you. For me, the inclusion of stories like “Maybe It Happened” helped frame the collection’s motives and possibilities. Can you talk a little more about how and why you walk the essay/story line in this collection (and/or in general)?
Jo Ann Beard: “Maybe It Happened” was written for a memoir-themed issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Given Oprah’s dramatic public reaction to another writer’s memoir which was only very loosely based in fact, I was hesitant to participate unless I could incorporate deniability into whatever story I decided to tell. It was a game, figuring out how to recount a story while infusing it with both the stubborn certainty and the inherent wobbliness of my own memory.
AEW: Wow! That’s a lot of pressure. But also very telling about memory, writing process and audience. Do you mind talking a little more about your audience considerations while writing?
JAB: Typically, I don't think about the reader when I'm writing—but in that case, it felt necessary to consider Oprah as my audience, because it was her magazine and because I had just witnessed the public flogging of a fellow writer who had strayed too far into fiction from what (I assumed) had begun as memoir.
And yes, there is a lot of pressure if you are trying to write well, everything is pitched against doing things that are difficult. To create proper memoir, you must make even the most quotidian details of a life seem meaningful in some way or other. And as we all know, most days, most events, most moments, resist meaning. Shit happens, as they say, and then some other shit happens, and on and on until eventually you die.
AEW: I’d love to know how you build a book of essays. Is there a specific essay that you use as the heart, the anchor? Or is it less curated than that? Perhaps you could talk about crafting Festival Days specifically here?
JAB: It was less curated, not a book project but shorter projects about things I was interested in over the years. A cumulative effort that added up to a sampling of different kinds of works and subject matter—from memoir to personal essay to portraiture to travelogue to fiction to pieces that can’t be categorized with one word. Like most of writing.
AEW: Was The Boys of My Youth assembled in a similar way?
JAB: The Boys of My Youth was accumulated essay by essay, written over about five years.
AEW: You tell two stories that are transparently not your own in Festival Days, “Werner” and “Cheri”. Both of these essays/stories recount someone else’s trauma, grief and loss. Can you talk about navigating that tender territory on the page?
JAB: Well, there’s a universal aspect to both of their stories. I don’t want to say what it is in each case, because I can’t—it would be different for every reader, just like it would be different for Werner than for Cheri. There is always a mystery in literature; not every question can, or should, be answered for the reader. It takes away the power, pulls the punch, to have such a personal experience (as reading) explained in blunt terms. Anyway, it would nearly always be reductive, because reading is a collaborative experience and when you define it too much you erase the reader’s own interpretation.
AEW: I’ll just simply thank you for that response… not every question can, or should, be answered for the reader. (!!!) Moving on.
How do you so smartly avoid cheesy sentimentality when writing about dogs?! (Asking for a friend.)
JAB: Ha, I’m glad it doesn’t show, but I am pretty sentimental about dogs. It doesn’t hurt them at all, in fact they are mostly willing to play it however we want them to—for instance, if you ever see a dog walking around in a vinyl raincoat and boots, you get the sense they are in on the joke. It’s an age-old relationship in which humans don’t always keep up their end of things, but the dogs almost always do.
AEW: Yes! My rescue mutt adores his vinyl raincoat (Houston summers!). Perhaps a combo of realizing its function but more so recognizing my attention. Either way, he surely, certainly, knows more than I do about life.
I was recently reading Ben Lerner’s Hatred of Poetry and can’t stop thinking about the following, “You’re moved to write a poem, you’re called upon to sing because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms.” I go back and forth on agreeing and disagreeing with this statement. Often I do feel like there is something lost in the making, yet other times what ends up written is more than I could have expected from the outset. My question to you is, do you ever feel something similar with the essay? Perhaps the first question to consider is, is writing the essay an act of transcendence? Or is there something about nonfiction that subverts the grandiose?
JAB: Sometimes for me the act of reading feels like transcendence, but never the act of writing. Once I found an old pair of fishing waders in our cellar and, out of boredom and curiosity, I put them on and waded a few feet out into the winter pond. It was the darkest, creepiest sensation—the pressure of the ice-cold water against my legs, and the sudden weightiness, like gravity boots, the realization that if I stumbled, the boots would fill up and I’d be overpowered almost instantly. I had always seen the pond as beautiful and serene, a surface to reflect the ducks and geese and the willow trees and the blue sky. But just like that, I got it: Under all that serenity is something dark and unknown and fiercely uninterested in humans. Now when I look at the pond in all its Bob Ross beauty, I think Nice try. So, I guess I don’t get as much access to transcendence as to its opposite.
AEW: Can you talk a bit about the essay “Close” in your newest book Festival Days? This is an essay that explicitly addresses the craft of nonfiction as well as teaching nonfiction. You tell an unsuspecting story of wrangling meat ducks and end up saying, “Every essay, every academic talk, every writing effort can be deepened through observation and detail, can be made evocative, can contain interstellar dust, luminous patches and areas of darkness,” as well as, “I imagined my way into the mind of sitting duck. Because misery so often comes down on them from above, ducks are sensitive to looming shadows, the falling ax, the diving hawk [...] they know to flap their big wings as they run, removing much of what there is to grab.” “Close” could be read as an exercise in literary practicality. You make a craft claim and then show the reader what that claim could look like on the page. It’s brilliant and subtle and artistic. What do you think about this interpretation of the essay?
JAB: I was trying to write a talk that demonstrated craft instead of describing it. But really it was mostly a way of folding some pleasurable things into a task—just combining writing a lecture with the pleasure of thinking about ducks and poetry and the starry darkness of a winter night.
AEW: Well, it worked, and I like it.
Again, in your essay “Close” you offer a few personal perspectives on the workshop process, an experience that could really use a pedagogical overhaul in my opinion. What is one component of your own workshop that feels especially important to you? Or perhaps better asked this way, what do you not employ in your workshop that the traditional workshop model does?
JAB: An especially important component is the agreement that if a student is writing about something, it’s because they want to explore the ideas inherent inside it. They may not have any clue as to what those ideas are, but they may have a hint—an internal sense—that there’s something meaningful to be discovered, and that’s good enough. The writing is what will lead them to that discovery, and it’s very important for the workshop to respect that and stay out of its way. Thus, shut up if you don’t have anything nice to say.
AEW: Heard that! Workshops can feel so high stakes when they should privilege play, imagination. How do you manage critique to keep it kind (but also critique)?
JAB: I guess I try to set a tone. Reminding myself and others that we love literature, which is why we are studying it, and that the core and soul of literature is understanding another human being, or another world, so completely that we come to understand ourselves as a result of it. If you think of it that way, then reading even the most tentative and faltering work of our peers is a privilege, having the opportunity to weigh in on what they are attempting is a privilege, having the leisure and the bucks to sit around that table is a privilege. So, check your scorn and rise to the occasion.
AEW: While living in Western North Carolina, I had the opportunity and privilege to live and study among Appalachian oral storytellers. I would absolutely argue that you could hold your own storytelling chops among that crew. The care and time of your delivery, the way you cradle your listener, how the ordinary becomes the extraordinary, and so I am wondering if you come from storytellers yourself?
JAB: Actually, no, and I’m not much of one myself, but I’m in thrall to those who are. I had a friend, Kathy Rich, who is the subject of the title essay in Festival Days, and she was what my partner referred to as an anecdote factory. Every single thing that happened to Kathy in any given day was fun to hear about—she could turn a trip to the local minimart, where she got her coffee and newspaper, into a dinner table story that slayed. The same morning-breath guys deliberating too long over their Lotto numbers that I imagined dragging out by the collar and pulverizing were transformed by her into people worth paying close attention to, as everything in her world was.
AEW: I’m close friends with a storyteller and it is the same thing—everything is worth a story, the attention. If you don’t mind sharing, who do you look up to as a strong storyteller-writer? Who should I be reading right NOW?!
JAB: Someone just sent me an essay suggestion that I shall pass along: “The Brown Wasps” which is in The Night Country, an out-of-print book by Loren Eiseley. Right now I’m toggling back and forth between these interview questions and a Google search. I can pay $4 for a used copy through the behemoth that knows no mercy, or I can pay $20 on Bookshop.org. In honor of Loren Eiseley’s graciousness, of his keen eye for fairness, of his understanding that our smallest actions have consequences, I am going to invest $20 in a future that includes independent bookstores.
AEW: Last question, how does it feel completing and releasing Festival Days during this unprecedented time in history? Has your writing process been impacted by the isolation and tension we all experience on the daily? (And any plans for future projects?!)
JAB: Yes, my writing process was impacted in the wedged together, unable to move definition of the word. The whole last year seems now like a long dull dream, with moments of surreal vividness—a bobcat I saw in the middle of town, for instance, or my own terrible Zoom face. It was like the long hallucinatory dream in Rosemary’s Baby, where she cries out at one point: “This is really happening!” Interestingly, we were also being tricked by the devil and his minions.
AEW: F*CK THE DEVIL AND HIS MINIONS! (Can we end there?)
Adele Elise Williams is a writer, editor and educator currently living in Houston, Texas. Her poetry can be found or forthcoming in Guernica, Barzakh, Cream City Review, Bear Review, Tammy, Split Lip Magazine, Quarterly West, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her current goings-on can be found at adeleelisewilliams.com.